A Sweet Twist to the Jewish New Year
Friday night at sundown, September 18th, is the start to a new year on the Jewish (lunar) calendar. It marks the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, meaning “Head of the Year.” It also means I’ll be dipping apples in honey, wishing my friends and family a sweet new year. As I have shared here before, I am definitely one for traditions and simply love all holidays – annual get-togethers, celebratory atmosphere and tables filled with recipes that show up year after year.
But for the year 5770, I wanted to bake something a bit different, stray from the typical (even if delicious) honey cake and babka. Yet I still wanted to keep the message the same. A sweet new year. I pictured our beautiful holiday table set year after year with a round challah, piles of sliced apples and honey and new seasonal fruits – pomegranates, persimmons and fresh figs. And that’s when it clicked – I knew what I would make… a recipe I told my readers they would see here on the blog one day. And this was the perfect occasion… nougat (or torrone)! I would make a honey-based nougat and add dried figs as a second nod to the new year. After all, is there anything sweeter than nougat?!
You can use whatever honey you have on hand, and if it’s not liquid, simply put it in the microwave for a few seconds to make it so. From my cupboard, I pulled out a jar of Aleluya honey harvested in Argentine pampas, beautiful purple and green Iranian pistachios and plump dried figs from Turkey. I should note here that for more conservative Jews, it is customary not to eat nuts on Rosh Hashanah, as the numerical value of the Hebrew word for nuts (egoz) is the same as the Hebrew word for sin (chet).
Feel free to play with the recipe, replacing almonds or hazelnuts for the pistachios, for example. You can even add different flavorings like orange flower water, which is common in nougat. Or use almond extract, lavender honey or vanilla. I went au natural for this round and let the honey’s flavor dominate. You can also play with the shape and thickness, making long, flat bars (typical around France), small individual squares or even make pie slices as I had discovered in Venice. Whatever you do, you’ll want to avoid a real sticky situation – pun intended. So as I discovered with my marshmallow adventures, remember that cornstarch is still your best friend.
Happy New Year to all who are celebrating! L’Shanah Tovah and all the best for 5770!
Dried Fig and Pistachio Nougat
1 cup (350 grams) honey
1 cup (225 grams) sugar
1/3 cup (5 oz) water
2 egg whites
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup (125 grams) shelled pistachios
1 cup (145 grams or 6 large) dried figs, finely chopped
generous portion of cornstarch
Oil or butter an 8″ (20 cm) baking pan, then line the bottom and sides with pieces of edible wafer paper, trimming to fit. You don’t need scissors, just crease and the paper will break like crackers.
Heat honey, sugar and water in a heavy pot over low heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Bring to a boil over medium heat, without stirring, washing any sugar crystals down the side of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in cold water. Attach a candy thermometer to the pot and continue boiling, stirring occasionally, until it registers 310 to 315 degrees Fahrenheit (154 to 157 degrees Celsius), the upper end of the hard crack stage. Do not walk away at this point! Watch the syrup closely, as it can quickly burn near the end of the cooking process. As the temperature rises, beat egg whites with salt until they hold soft peaks. When the syrup is ready, remove from heat and let stand a few minutes.
With mixer on its lowest speed, slowly pour the hot syrup into the egg whites in a thin stream down the side of the bowl. Increase the speed to high and beat until the mixture has cooled down, about 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in pistachios and dried figs with a very sturdy spatula (it’s real stiff at this point).
With hands coated in cornstarch, place nougat on a work surface also sprinkled with cornstarch. Gently knead a few times to form a smooth mound. Fit into baking pan, pushing nougat toward the edges and making smooth. Cover with a square of wafer paper, trimming to fit. Place a second 8″ (20 cm) baking pan on top with a book or canned goods in it, so that you get an even surface. Let stand at room temperature for at least 8 hours.
Run a thin knife or metal spatula around edges of pan to loosen nougat, if necessary. If the wafer paper was high enough on the sides, you should be able to simply lift it out of the pan. Place nougat onto a cutting board sprinkled with cornstarch. Do not attempt to remove wafer paper! Trim ends and cut nougat into long strips, and again into rectangles or squares. After each slice of the knife, re-coat the blade with cornstarch. Wrap each piece of nougat in parchment or wax paper to avoid spreading and sticking together. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for a week or two — if it lasts that long!